Shout! Factory refers to the thirteen-ninth volume of Mystery Science Theater 3000 as the “almost certainly, probably definitely, maybe unquestionably” last release of classic episodes. Whether or that turns out to be true remains to be seen; the company makes some miraculous film rights clearances. But Vol. XXXIX will be the last release for some time. And so, this likely final collection presents the three remaining episodes available to Shout! and a special collection of host segments. Does it measure up? Let’s take a look.
Girls Town is the winner of the set. Starring Mamie Van Doren, Mel Tormé, Elinor Donohue, Ray Anthony and Paul Anka, it is certainly the most star-studded. But the film, a quasi-exploitation flick about a girls’ reformatory, is nearly competent in its own right. It offers Mike and the Bots plenty of riffing. From Mel Tormé’s tendency to scat-sing to Van Doren’s figure and to Anka’s milquetoast performance, the gang finds a lot of material based on those extra-cinematic concerns.
They also engage with the story and find plenty of jokes within it. A runner about another Girls Town girl and her fixation on Anka and Van Doren is a guaranteed laugh every time. As is a private detective’s uncanny resemblance to Cary Grant. But the film’s relative quality also makes it the breeziest film in the set by far.
The Amazing Transparent Man
The Amazing Transparent Man is the dullest of the set despite the classic host segment in which TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) discovers he missed his screening of Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale. In fact, the segment is the most memorable thing here. The movie is a low-budget take on The Invisible Man that plays perilously close to copyright infringement. But it’s doubtful that anyone would sue as the film is mainly composed of actors talking to one another in extended two-shots.
These sorts of films were a specialty in the show’s early days, but by season six – when this episode aired – it looked out of place for the rhythm of the Mike Nelson era. In fact, its similarities to Joel-era classics like The Killer Shrews and The Amazing Colossal Man make it hard to distinguish. But Mike and the Bots keep the riffs coming until a hilarious climax in which the Transparent Man becomes opaque during a bank robbery.
Like the Squanto sketch overshadowing The Amazing Transparent Man, Diabolik, the film, is overshadowed by the host segments surrounding it. The episode is the last Mystery Science Theater 3000 produced during its original 1989-1999 run. As the Satellite of Love prepares to land on Earth, Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) forces Mike and the Bots to watch one last cheesy movie: a French spy thriller based on a comic book and directed by trash auteur Mario Bava.
The results are colorful, but not as special as, say Operation Kid Brother or other spy movies the show tackled earlier in its run. The riffing never relaxes, though, and you never get the sense that the MST3K crew are running out the clock. They still have plenty of jokes about Diabolik’s silly leather costume and the Spirograph-inspired opening credits. Nonetheless, the sketches are the thing. In each, Mike and the Bots get ready to come to Earth and the conclusion is just the most appropriate way to send off ten years of Mystery Science.
The last disc in the set is Satellite Dishes, a collection of the host segments from the twelve episodes Shout! were unable to release due to rights issues with the films. Some episodes are more frustrating to watch in this truncated form than others; usually tied to the episodes the viewer has never seen in full. In this reviewer’s case, Episode #906: The Space Children was particularly difficult. But it’s easy to imagine a fan who has never seen Episode #418: The Eye Creatures feeling completely clueless as most of the sketches involve scenes from the movie. Although, one sketch, “Earl Holimania” makes about the same amount of sense in and out of context.
The extras are, as always, fun and informative. The highlight is Behind the Scream: Daniel Griffith on Ballyhoo. As it says on the tin, Ballyhoo Motions pictures Principal Daniel Griffith discusses his time making documentaries for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 sets. He recalls how he became involved with Shout! and how he chose to tailor the style of the docs to the movie being covered.
It will inspire you to look back at his featurettes on Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and The Beast of Yucca Flats. But Ballyhoo’s documentary about The Amazing Transparent Man is almost as dry as the film itself. It examines the reason why the movie was made in the first place (tax shelter) and notes some of the filmmakers involved. But details about the production itself failed to make an impression.
The Diabolik disc features two documentaries about the final days of the original MST3K. The first, Showdown in Eden Prairie, is a Ballyhoo talking head piece with executive producer Jim Mallon and other members of the crew. Mallon reveals another network was interested in picking up the show, but suggests others made the final decision to end the series. The second documentary, The Last Dance, is a look at the last day filming the Diabolik episode. It features the most extensive behind-the-scenes look at making the show ever released. While informative about the process, it is tough to sit through. The fly-on-the-wall style makes for very long shots of the performers getting ready for a scene. Nonetheless, it’s still worth a look.
Other special features include theatrical trailers for all three films and Chuck Love and the Anatomy of a Theme. In the short interview, original theme song composer Charlie Erickson recalls working with creator Joel Hodgson on the original 1988 theme song.
As always, a new Mystery Science Theater 3000 set is a must for the diehard fan. But this is particularly true this time around as it will likely be the last. For more casual viewers, Girls Town and the special features definitely make it a worthwhile purchase. Of course, they may also find The Amazing Transparent Man and Diabolik more engaging than this reviewer. Nevertheless, buying Mystery Science Theater 3000 Vol. XXIX comes with a certain sadness as we say goodbye to the classic series.
But at least there is a new season box set to come.